East Lansing has been declared a “sanctuary city” after the city council voted 3-1 in favor of adopting the status during the Tuesday, Jan. 10, meeting. The vote followed a unanimous recommendation from East Lansing’s Human Rights Commission.
Mayor Ron Bacon, Mayor Pro Tem Jessy Gregg and Councilmember Dana Watson voted in favor, with Bacon warning someone is going to have to deal with the potential humanitarian implications if this results in a sudden flood of people in need coming to East Lansing.
Councilmember George Brookover voted against, saying the move offered no protections that didn’t already exist and suggesting it was likely to make East Lansing a political target unnecessarily.
Since 2017, East Lansing has been designated a “safe haven” city, which carries many of the same implications as being a sanctuary city. But supporters of the “sanctuary city” declaration pushed the council to adopt the sanctuary city status because, they said, there is a broader understanding of what protections it carries for people lacking legal immigration status.
“We understand that while the term ‘Sanctuary City’ is not a legally binding term, we believe that such a designation will offer a framework for East Lansing to exercise restraint when federal agents seek assistance claiming jurisdictional authority,” Human Rights Commission Chair Liz Miller told Council during the public comment portion of the meeting.
The resolution passed states East Lansing employees, including law enforcement, will not collaborate with federal agents to enforce federal immigration law, unless other criminal activity is involved. It also states East Lansing officials will not take direct action against individuals based on immigration status.
Bacon said making East Lansing a sanctuary city is a topic he has “moved on” before voting ‘yes.’
“I do want to send out the clarifying-call that we are that shining city on the hill,” Bacon said at Council. “That’s just who we are and that’s who we’re going to be moving forward.”
Still, Bacon expressed concerns about passing the measure. With so many young people pushing to make East Lansing a sanctuary city, he said he hopes they’re up for the challenges that come with helping people fleeing difficult situations.
“I’m not for symbolism, but I am for calls to action,” he said. “I consider this a call to action.”
Bacon expressed concerns about a possible lack of resources available if a large number of people in need suddenly come to East Lansing.
Still, Bacon said it is important East Lansing and other Michigan cities be prepared to be sanctuaries. He said climate change and other factors will cause mass movement of people, not just people from other countries but also other states, and Michigan’s natural resources will draw people in.
“It’s a wonderful thing you’re throwing out here, but it’s actually a call to work,” he said, speaking to the Michigan State University students who had pressed for the measure. “People-movement is going to be the crisis of your time.”
Watson, who works in public health, said she was voting “yes” because being in a sanctuary city could help some immigrants’ mental health.
“[A problem is] chronic stress for individuals when they are living with looking over their shoulders, wondering if this or that is going to happen,” she said. “Being able to be an example of a city where, possibly, people can take that off their shoulders feels right.”
Community members voiced support for East Lansing becoming a sanctuary city.
Speaking before the vote during the public comment period, some citizens looked to highlight the prevalence of immigrants in East Lansing and the surrounding communities.
“There are many people that have struggled to get here under many circumstances,” Ingham County Commissioner Robert Peña said. “Some for religious [reasons], some for fleeing war, some for being persecuted for sexual orientation, and they are in the neighborhood.”
Miller said the resolution may help some immigrants become more comfortable contacting authorities for help.
“If an immigrant is fearful of the police, they are unlikely to call and report a crime or domestic dispute or abuse, or even a vehicle accident,” she said. “We will be less safe as a result, unless they are sure they are not to be fearful of any repercussions for doing the right thing.”
MSU student groups have advocated for East Lansing to be a sanctuary city for years and played a pivotal role in the resolution being passed. ASMSU Community Liaison Jack Behan was one of the students who spoke in favor of passing the resolution.
“This will introduce a clear and cut definition of what the city’s status is and how it will contribute to welcoming individuals from all backgrounds into the city,” Behan told Council.
Brookover voiced concerns about East Lansing naming itself a sanctuary city while also voicing his support for immigrants.
Voting against the measure, Brookover expressed his desire that all international visitors and residents feel welcome in East Lansing. But he said he believes the city is already welcoming and has already been taking the measures compelled by the resolution.
“I look at the actual operative provisions of this [sanctuary city] resolution compared to the 2017 [safe haven] resolution, as far as I can tell, in terms of the directives to our law enforcement agencies, they’re exactly the same,” Brookover, an attorney, said. “We haven’t cooperated with immigration authorities since 2017 and I suspect we didn’t cooperate with them before that.”
Brookover referred to his affiliation with the Democratic party while saying that sometimes it is smarter politically to do nothing. He noted that rhetoric surrounding sanctuary cities has become heated.
Brookover also shared Bacon’s concern there will not be enough resources if many people in need come to the city.
“The reality is, if we were faced with an influx of individuals who might fit this category, I think we would then morally have a responsibility to take care of them,” he said. “We don’t have the resources to take care of them and I would feel pretty bad about that.”
Following the vote, Bacon looked to the audience and delivered a clear message.
“Get to work, there’s work to do,” he said.